Canadians now have the chance to see the brilliant, impactful movie from Danis Goulet, Night Raiders (executive produced by Taika Waititi), the largest-ever production budget for an Indigenous film in Canada with the record for the widest theatrical opening for an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker, opening in 80 locations across the country on Friday.
The film is an Indigenous sci-fi thriller set in the year 2043. Children are property of the State and Cree mother Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) is desperate to protect her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) by joining a group of vigilantes to infiltrate the Emerson State schools to take these children back.
Goulet, Night Raiders writer and director, was particularly influenced by the Idle No More movement, which started in November 2012, protesting the Canadian government's dismantling of environmental protection laws, protecting lands and waters.
In terms of the sci-fi thriller genre, Night Raiders comes on the heels of Goulet’s 2013 short film Wakening, which was also set in a dystopian future.
“Coming into the genre just opened up so many possibilities for me, as a storyteller, that I just felt compelled to stay in that space,” the filmmaker told Yahoo Canada. “All of my work explores the impact of colonization on Indigenous families."
“One of the biggest systems in place to fracture and erase Indigenous cultures was the residential school system, which was in place for seven generations of Indigenous families. I really wanted to talk about that because I felt like it was not a part of the conversation nationally, in the way that it needed to be.”
'We are fighting so that future generations don't have to be as resilient'
While Night Raiders tackles real policies that were inflicted on Indigenous people in Canada, including the residential school system that ripped Indigenous families apart, the filmmaker indicated that putting these issues in genre-based filmmaking provided a “fresh entry point” into understanding these policies.
“It's so easy to get fatigued because it is such a difficult thing to grapple with and I think we shouldn't underestimate just how profound this is, and how it's a process to take in the truth,” Goulet said. “I think we're very much still in that process.”
“To me, genre just offered a way in, that invites audiences in, and then hopefully through the telling of the story, they understand the impact, the real impact on human beings, and what it is to be taken away when families are fractured.”
Goulet has also been inspired by the “resilience” of Indigenous communities, particularly youth and women in these communities. But it was actually an interview the filmmaker was watching with a young person who said that he was “tired of having to be resilient” that really resonated with Goulet.
“We are fighting so that future generations don't have to be as resilient as those in the past have had to be and in a way, that was reflected in the story,” she said. “Niska’s just hardened by her resilience, she's been living in survival mode for so long and her protection has actually meant that Waseese, her daughter, is able to have an openness to the world because of the fierceness of her mother's protection.”
It's our hope that we won’t have to be this resilient, as much as I want to celebrate how strong people have been.Danis Goulet
'Beautiful spirit of collaboration between Indigenous people'
For the film’s star Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blood Quantum, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open), she was excited to work on a project with Goulet, her friend and mentor, but also felt a “massive responsibility” to do Goulet’s story justice.
“To me, she represents so many Indigenous women I know within our communities and I wanted to honour their experiences in the best way possible,” Tailfeathers said. “So it was a massive undertaking and responsibility, and I just felt like this is a story that our communities needed.”
“[Goulet] gave me this massive backstory for Niska. She built this whole history of the world that we existed in, there was this timeline that went back like 40 years or more, and then 40 years into the future. I felt like she welcomed me into this world that she built in a way that I hadn't really experienced with any other director.”
In terms of the collaboration with Goulet, Tailfeathers added that there was also space for her to build a relationship with Brooklyn Letexier-Hart (Burden of Truth), who plays Niska’s daughter Waseese, creating a “sense of safety and comfort” for the two of them to work together.
“There was also this really powerful aspect of it being a co-production with Canada and New Zealand and so, we had all these Maori people involved,” Tailfeathers highlighted. “There was this really beautiful spirit of collaboration between Indigenous people in a creative capacity.”
“As an actor you have to go to these very dark places sometimes and Niska’s experiences are similar to mine, and I think a lot of Indigenous people, all of us can relate on some level because of this history that we embody. I felt safe and supported in a way that was very specific to being within Indigenous spaces.”
For director, writer Goulet, the most important thing was to create a space where everyone on set felt “protected” to do the work.
“I know that all actors bring their own lived experience to what they're doing and that's challenging, but I think in an Indigenous context and dealing with something that has had such a profound impact on our communities, protection is the most important thing,” she explained.
For example, the Indigenous Screen Office funded a mentorship program, which allowed the production to have a greater Indigenous presence on set.
“A couple days before shooting, I had a meeting with all the mentees that were hired as a part of it and I just said, ‘Thank you, your being here is going to help me do what I need to do,’” Goulet shared.
“No one wants to come into these spaces and be the only one and it was that collective spirit, I think, which gave us all the courage to do the work that we needed to do. But it is so important that you can just be at people's backs and say, ‘I'm right here,’ and also to have cultural practices integrated into what we're doing, so that, that support is there, should anybody need it.”